Those of you who follow my work online may have noticed that something has been awry these last few months. After becoming full-time YouTuber I was typically uploading a video every week or two – sometimes video essays, sometime vlogs. This actually wasn’t too far off my upload schedule during the later stages of my PhD, somehow releasing videos every couple of weeks alongside writing my thesis (I’ll give you a hint though: the secret ingredient was grossly overworking myself). Yet over the last several months I’ve released just a handful videos on my YouTube channel. One of these was the monstrous Which planets in the MCU could really exist?, an epic which took months to research and edit. After the release of this video I felt massively drained, and told myself I’d take a few days to recover and then I’d be back on the wagon making more content.
That, however, didn’t happen.
The sense of emptiness and exhaustion that I felt after that video was released and initially did very poorly has clung to me and refused to leave. In the aftermath of this huge project I realised that I was very, very tired. But more than that, I wasn’t ok. In truth I hadn’t been ok for months before that, but I’d been ploughing on with work to such an extent that I didn’t give myself the time to not feel ok. This self-indulgently long blog post is going to outline a few things about what’s been going on, and what I’m going to do about it. I apologise in advance for writing so much, but if I’m going to take the radical step (for me) of talking about my mental health in public then I want to do it right.
First things first, I should make it clear that I’m not burned out. Well, I’m not just burned out. I have no doubt in my mind that I overwork myself. At present I’m: producing a CD, designing another CD, finishing editing the first episode of a whole new ambitious video series, writing a video essay, working nine hours a week on a secret project that I can’t talk about yet, preparing to give talks at several universities, regularly streaming on Twitch, creating a semi-regular podcast, producing a charity single, editing a vlog, working regularly with other creators, reading a huge stack of books for another project, trying to lose weight, learn two languages, paint a 40K army, working on python code for another huge, secret project out next year; AND then doing all the other stuff influencers are supposed to constantly do: filling social media channels with content, managing my finances, keeping up with correspondence, being active in my followers’ community, and probably about a dozen things I can’t remember right now. And that’s just the stuff currently in my mental RAM, that I’m actively working on.
There will certainly be people who will read all that and think it’s not that bad or that their workload is worse, and I have no doubt that there are people out there who have it worse. While the amount of work isn’t the problem here, it’s certainly a colossal strain. Especially considering that all of this work is performed entirely alone, working in isolation out of a spare room in my house. More on that later. Anyway, I’m deflecting.
The real problem is in my head.
I flew back from Korea last week after filming an international renewable energy conference (a series of videos - including a vlog - will follow… eventually) and took a few hours to watch Creed II as we flew into Europe. Between the bouts and training montages there’s a moment in the movie when Rocky Balboa, referring to his fight with Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, says ‘that guy broke things in me that ain’t never been fixed’. For those who haven’t seen Rocky IV, firstly absolutely fix that because it’s the best montage you’ll ever see, but more importantly the film focuses on Rocky fighting the Soviet titan Ivan Drago, a boxer so powerful and dangerous that he outright killed his last opponent in the ring. Spoiler alert: Rocky eventually overcomes the odds and despite the pummelling of a lifetime wins the fight. Creed II is all about Rocky overcoming the mental damage caused by Drago in that bout via a title fight between Rocky’s protégé and Drago’s son. It’s a good watch – if you liked the original series you should check it out.
When I was doing my undergraduate degree at Oxford University, I used Rocky IV as an inspirational tool. I would listen to the soundtrack while working in the library and watch the training montages on YouTube to pump myself up before exams. To me, my exams were my Drago. An impossible opponent that I was unprepared for but that I would eventually, through hard work, triumph over. And as my degree went on this proved true – in the exams at the end of my third year I was on the cusp of a first, and felt confident going in to my fourth and final year that I would get a good final grade. But then everything went wrong. I’ve detailed this more fully in my Draw My Life video, but to cut a long story short my life fell apart. My mental health was at an all-time low, and I was self-harming out of sheer, blinding hatred of myself. My work had been rapidly deteriorating and I felt that I could do so much better, that I should be doing so much better – but I just couldn’t. This all culminated in a massive panic attack just before my final exams. I distinctly remember feeling like my brain had broken, and that everything I had learned in my degree had fallen out of my head.
I did abysmally in those exams and lost out on my place doing a DPhil (PhD) at Oxford. Subsequently I returned home to live with my parents for a couple of months before taking up a place studying at Exeter University. I was a shell of a human. I was completely exhausted and had a total lack of desire to do anything at all. Academic work, music, working out, even seeing friends. After several weeks of this malaise I took myself to the doctors and had some blood tests done. In the consultation the doctor asked if I’d spoken to any mental health services about what had happened, and I quickly said no. I had never been the kind of person to talk to people about my emotions, and especially not a counsellor or a mental health professional. Those were services used by people who actually needed them, not for whiners and pretenders like me.
When the results of the blood tests came back there a borderline thyroid result that they recommended I self-medicated as it wasn’t serious enough to merit an actual prescription. But that was it. In other words, there was nothing physically wrong with me. Everything was in my head.
Naturally however I didn’t act on this information and actually talk to anyone about what had happened. Instead I went to study at Exeter and buried myself in extra-curricular activities. Eventually my desire to do, well, anything, came back and I started to make progress with my work again. Those who have watched my PhD vlogs will be familiar with much of the next several years, including the infamous issue of getting my PV inversion code to work. When I did eventually crack that problem it felt like a small part of me had been restored. A brief, wonderful feeling that perhaps my brain did still work. This was however a blip in my graduate experience – while I had imposter syndrome to a certain degree at Oxford (as, I think, is entirely understandable for someone with my background) at Exeter it was amplified tenfold. I was just a guy in too deep who didn’t know what he was doing. My brain didn’t work anymore. I didn’t deserve to be there. At one point I actually got imposter syndrome about having imposter syndrome. I thought that only people who really belonged and were just mistaken about themselves got imposter syndrome – I didn’t even deserve to feel that way.
My confidence was totally gone.
And since graduating this lack of confidence has only deepened. While I know that I am a competent YouTuber, scientist, and human being – because I have been repeatedly told them – I don’t believe these things. This has been typified by my YouTube career. I’m a member of a collective of educational YouTubers which has a particularly active Slack. Despite the community being nothing but welcoming, and our mutual agent repeatedly assuring me that I’m doing just fine, I feel that I don’t belong in this group. That I’m on the verge of being kicked out for not producing enough videos or bringing enough views or money in. Or that I’m not famous enough to get a say. So I barely post in the Slack channels, and feel immediately anxious when someone privately messages me, fearing that this will be the message that ends my career. Sometimes it takes days for me to summon up the courage to actually read the messages. Again: I have been told the exact opposite of these fears, and have been reassured actively and passively several times. I know that I make videos that people watch and sometimes are even popular. I just don’t believe it, or don’t believe that its deserved. My self-confidence has just evaporated.
As such, for the past several years I’ve been living my life in an entirely passive, reactionary way. I could probably count on one hand the number of things that I’ve personally, actively chosen to make happen since graduating - everything else has just happened to me. I simply haven’t had the confidence to try anything else. Though, truth be told, I’ve not really had things that I’ve wanted to do lately. If I was to play psychologist, I’d hypothesise that the lack of confidence in my abilities has eventually caused me to give up on wanting to do things. This has resulted in a near total lack of interest in my life. If I don’t have a working brain or vaguely adequate abilities then why should I care what I want to do? It’s not going to happen anyway. No one will care about what I make or do. So: stop wanting to do things.
If I’m being totally honest, I don’t really care what happens to me anymore. I just don’t really want to do things. I have a crushing sense of apathy about what happens in my life.
This all came to a head recently on my way out to Korea, when it turned out I’d messed up the dates of going on holiday with my girlfriend. Understandably she was upset, while all I had to show was this total apathy. I didn’t really care. All of the above had been simmering in the background for years, gradually getting worse, and like a frog in boiling water I had been unaware of how bad things had gotten. In an angry flush of messages to my girlfriend I finally gave voice to it all, and finally realised that I was very, very mentally unwell.
In the words of Rocky Balboa, I finally accepted that stuff in me had broken that ain’t never been fixed.
I don’t know the appropriate terminology, but I think I have a mixture of anxiety and depression. The depression is relatively self-explanatory but the anxiety is a few levels deeper, I think. I’m basically constantly anxious, mostly because I’m self-employed and so entirely dependent on my own gumption to make a living. When that gumption, that self-belief disappears, it means I’m hanging myself out to dry. Yet I know that I have to do my job in order to afford to live, and neither believe I can nor have any desire to do the necessary work. Hence the anxiety. This has been particularly bad recently, meaning I take hours to reply to a simple email, or completely incapable of even opening the YouTube creator studio. If I so much as think about finishing editing my next video my heart rate increases, my muscles tense, and I start gnawing at my lips. Lately I’ve been unable to sleep for weeks at a time, biting the skin off my fingers, and pulling chunks of my hair out in a compulsive fashion. My body is slowly breaking itself apart.
Ok, so that’s what’s wrong with me. Now what am I going to do about it?
With the frankly superhuman support of my girlfriend, I’ve decided that I need to seek medical help. I’m seeing my GP this week and will likely be starting a programme of counselling soon. I’d like to avoid a chemical course of treatment, instead hoping to use professional mental health services to work through the damage in my past and clear my current mental logjam, but will have to see what my doctor recommends. All of this is something that I, understandably I hope, will be doing in private. I may choose to share some parts of the process on public channels, but please understand that I need to do this self-care in privacy.
Additionally, I’m going to scale back my work, at least for a while. I think part of the problem is that I work in a profession which requires constant creativity: in writing, editing, and production. This is exhausting, especially when working alone, and so in order to lessen the pressure on me to create I’m going to put some projects on hold and decrease the frequency of my expected output. For the next several months I’m going to be making fewer videos, podcasts, and livestreams. This will definitely mean taking a hit on my finances, but (I think) worth it in the long run. I hope that I will eventually return to my early 2018 levels of output, making a video nearly every week, but I can’t make any promises. Much as I want to become the person I once was again, I’m not sure if that’s even possible.
As I’ve said many times, I think a major problem has been my isolation. As such I’m going to attempt to work with others both digitally, outsourcing video editing and design work, and also physically: working away from my home in an environment with others. I’ve always been a very solitary person, but I think it’s clear that I need some other people in my work life. Hopefully this is something that I’ll be able to report back on very soon.
Lastly, I just want to say something about the nature of this problem. In my experience, mental health isn’t a calm, level sea. There are mighty waves with towering crests and plunging troughs. When an illness like depression makes itself known the water level doesn’t simply plummet to the sea floor: instead the sea level gradually lowers, and the troughs get deeper and deeper. The crests of the waves are still there though, and many of them are still quite high. There are still plenty of moments and sometimes even whole days when I feel good. But as a person whose life is a product lived in public view, it is in my interest to only show the high points. The soaring wavetops. These make up the snaps of my life that I depict in my products, but also in my interactions with friends. After all, up until now I just didn’t talk about my emotions and wanted to avoid such conversations. So I only talked about the good times, or pretended that everything was fine. As such if you’ve seen in me in livestreams lately, or even talked to me in person or on social media, you may be thinking that this announcement is a total surprise, or that you didn’t think anything was wrong. Please try to understand that you think these things because you’ve only been seeing the crests of the waves. Some being real, and some being faked. In some ways my job is to constantly have a happy face on, but much of the time that’s all it is: a state worn on the outside rather than lived on the inside.
I can’t promise that I will be totally authentic in the future, because I don’t think that will benefit anyone. But from now on I will try to be more honest on social media about how things are going, because if nothing else I hope it will show that we can talk about when we’re not feeling ok. Admitting that I have a problem of this magnitude has been a huge, difficult step. Talking about it with the right people is going to be the next one.
So that’s it, that’s the big scary blog post written. I hope that I have your understanding and that I don’t come across as a big whiny baby who’s blown a tiny, universal issue that we all face totally out of proportion because I think I’m special.
The TL;DR is: I’m ill and will be trying to get better over the coming months, and part of that will mean decreasing my work output. I’ll get back to you again when there’s something to report.
As a final note I just want to thank pixel girl for her unyielding support. She’s been my rock during this process of beginning to fix me, never afraid to call me out on my bullshit and patient beyond words with my mental state. I wouldn’t be here without her.
Opening up my current position to the world beyond her is scary and I hope you will bear with me over the next several months as I endeavour to get my brain working again.
Thank you for reading, and if you see a part of you in this anywhere then please, please start talking to someone about it. It’s intimidating but worth the effort. Once you take the first step a new world of possibilities opens up to you.
Simon, age 29 1/25